PEOPLE, particularly poor people, endure health costs and suffering that others cause but don't pay for.

Pollution produces sickness, disability and death. Those of us who create the most pollution tend to live and work in the least polluted places and to suffer least from pollution diseases. To remove this burden from those stuck in fould neighborhoods and workplaces will require any major social and economic advances. But a large measure of environmental justice, and perhaps some new corrective force, could be applied in relatively short order.

The Japanese have taken such action.

Japan's Law for the Compensation of Pollution-Related Health Damage was enacted in 1973. University of Hawaii law professor Julian Gresser who has been analyzing Japan's experience for the Environmental Law Institute under a Ford Foundation grant, has found it a primising start.

In 1976, an estimated 44,000 Japanese victims of multiple-source air pollution were compensated for their illness, primarily chronic lung disease. A much smalle additional number received payments for health damage by such specific exposures as Minamata (mercury) poisoning. Payments can cover medical expenses, loss of earnings, funeral costs and survivor benefits.

Perhaps most important, 80 per cent of Japan's compensation funds come from emission charges paid by polluting firms and 20 per cent from a tonnage tax on motor vehicles. Some $250 million has been distributed to medically certified victims in Japan since the program began.

Japan has made a fundamental national judgment: Pollution damage costs are to paid by polluters, and victims should not have to go to court for basic compensation. The resulting system of emission charges and compensation is still rudimentry and evolving. Only certain diseases are covered; cancer is not among them. Damage to property, esthetics and natural systems is not covered. Fees exacted from polluting firms thus far are based on sulfur oxide emissions alone, except for serious local pollution by mercury, cadium and arsenic. The tonnage tax on motor vehicles ignores emission quality.

There are other gaps and inequities, and uncertainties arise from subtle cause-and-effect relationships and from the process of certifying victims. But a "polluter pays" system is on line and working. Moreover, its very functions of data collection concerning specific emissions and disease incidence are producing information to justify increasingly comprehensive charges and benefits in the future.

WHY DON'T WE have such a system? In part because our courts have not moved far enough in ruling that multiple contributors to pollution, as in any of our metropolitan areas, can each be held responsibnle for pollution damage. Japanese courts have so found, on the basis of high statistical correlation between epidemiological evidence of physical disorders and the emission and presence of substances known to cause them.

Further, American victims have not become an organized, justice-demanding force as have Japan's. This may be attributale to our predominantly middle and upper-class environmental movement, whose priorities sometimes differ from those of the lower-income groups most harmed by pollution. Nonetheless, important elements of the U.S. labor, social welfare and environmental communities have advanced common "environmentalist" positions on significant issues of air and water quality, toxic substances control, environmental and occupational health and public transportation. The same interest groups may find in Japan's experience solid grounds for new coooperation and joint political action.

Charges of inequity could well be leveled at a U.S. system compensating victims of pollution known to have made them ill, but doing nothing for those with identical illness of unknown origin.

Increasingly reliable estimates are being made of the incidence and costs of various health losses caused by given pollutants in this country. Taking first the polluting substances for which illness effects are most reliably correlated and moving to others as their correlations become more certain (and defensible in court), appropriate fees for discharge of various kinds and amounts of pollution might be imposed gradually.

To avoid compensating some ill persons and not others, the proceeds of emission charges could be used to help pay the costs of comprehensive national health insurance, benefitting all ill persons equally. The justice and rational would thus lie in payment by polluters of the very portion of national health costs caused by pollution. Under such a system, costly examination and administrative certification of each individual claiming to be a pollution victim would be avoided.

DOES IT SOUND too easy? Perhaps so, as inspected thus far, but the opportunities and options are worth deeper examination. Some thoughtful authorities object to earmarking federal revenues in such fashion, preferring that the general treasury receive all inecome and that the Congress be free to adjust outgo without entrenched beneficiary systems. But the widespread health insurance may soon emcompass most Americans. Environmentalists, many of whom have long sought to include environmental costs of production in the pricing of goods and services might well be enlisted in that constituency.

A 50-cents-a-pound charge on sulfur fuels, according to reliable estimates, would produce $14 billion in annual revenues at the onset. The deterrent effect of such a levy might, over a period of several years, reduce pollution greatly and cut revenues to $2 billion or less. Yet, if pollution declines, there will presumably follows a reduction of pollution-induced disease and of its portion of the nation's health costs.

Ultimately, damage to priority and natural systems should be covered by emission charges and compensation payments. Some revenues might be applied to special rehabilition for disease victims, to restoration of properties and landscapes long afflicted by pollution or to emission control research and development.

A somewhat different sort of pollution charge was proposed recently by the Environmental Protection Agency. This would be a "non-compliance fee"paid annually by each polluting firm, in an amount apporved by EPA as equal to the capital and operating costs of meeting EPA cleanup requirements. Those who have met the cost of cleanup might support such a levy, to cut competition from noncomplying firms in their own industries.

An EPA representative notes wryly that companies now overstating control costs, to "prove" they cannot afford to comply, might change their tunes. In any event, the plan would provide for a reconciliation of over and underpayments, when compliance is actually obtained. The opportunity in many industries to meet emission standards by process changes amd major replacement of facilities, often with gains far beyond pollution control, could make the "compliance" portion of such investments hard to define.

While both the EPA proposal and potential adaptations of Japan's practice warrant careful scrutiny, the enforcement of present U.S. pollution control measures must be sustained at full steam. Those whose health, whose ability to work, whose earnings (such as the Virginia fisherman idled by James River Kepone), or whose property is diminished by pollution must have full rights to sue and collect damages beyond any compensatioin program. Emission fees should become equal to or exceed costs of cleaning up and should not be seen as a sort of legal license to discharge waste.

New pressure for a "polluter-pays" system will no doubt elicit corporate messages to unemployed and lower-income Americans with the familiar jobs-vs-environment theme. It will be claimed that fees must be passed on those buying each firm's products, raising prices and reducing sales and jobs. Sometimes this will be true, and government and industry must be prepared with employment alternatives as necessary. The recommendations of numerous investigations into environmentally benign and energy-efficient economic adjustments should be considered in this context. Job transitions that free Americans from polluted lives and livelihoods will pay off handsomely, in new health, vigor and spirits in millions of our people.